Experts answer common questions about how to minimize coronavirus risk whether you’re back at work, eating out, or getting a #Quarantine Hair trim.
States have begun lifting stay-at-home orders aimed at stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus; but concerns about COVID-19 remain. Even as people return to their pre-pandemic activities, several regions across the United States have reported increases in the number of people infected with the virus, raising fears that the opening of public life may accelerate the rate of transmission.
Coming out of hibernation carries some risk, but we now have a better understanding of how this virus spreads and how we can protect ourselves from getting infected, says Thomas Russo, MD, a professor and the chief of infectious disease in the department of medicine at the University at Buffalo in New York. For most people, says Dr. Russo, the benefits (protecting mental health, earning income) outweigh the risks. “However,” he adds, “if you are vulnerable or live with someone who is vulnerable, the risk-benefit ratio requires careful consideration.”
Among those most prone to severe illness related to COVID-19 are people who are 65 or older, have a chronic condition such as heart disease, or are immunocompromised, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As offices, restaurants, and hair salons begin to reopen, the big question is: How can people stay safe in these environments?
Experts agree that focusing on behaviors you can control remains essential — washing your hands, social distancing (staying 6 feet away from others), and wearing a mask. But what about when circumstances are out of your control? After all, there’s no way to stay 6 feet away from the person trimming your bangs, and you can’t wear a mask while devouring a pizza or drinking a glass of wine.
Although no activity outside your house is risk-free, there are best practices to follow. Read on for more about how to stay safe.
Reducing Risk at the Office
How do I know that my coworkers aren’t coming into the office sick and possibly infecting me?
Much of the responsibility lies with the employer. “I think it’s important to screen people, not just for fever but other symptoms of COVID-19 such as cough, muscle aches and pain, sore throat, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea,” says Amesh Adalja, MD, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “If a person is experiencing any of those symptoms, they should be instructed to stay home and possibly be evaluated for COVID-19 so that they don’t transmit the virus to anyone else.”
Employers are also responsible for promoting an attitude shift among workers. “There can be a phenomenon in the office called ‘presentism,’ which is the opposite of absenteeism. It’s when people always want to show up to work; they don’t want to take a day off,” says Dr. Adalja.
Employers need to create a culture in which workers who are sick don’t feel guilty or fear reprisals if they stay home, and in fact are thanked for doing so, he says.
Should everyone wear face coverings at the office?
Face masks aren’t enough all on their own: They are part of an overall safety strategy. “It’s important to remember that masks and face coverings aren’t a substitute for social distancing; if you’re trying to decrease transmission, being 6 feet apart is the best thing you can do,” says Adalja.
This advice echoes the recommendation from the CDC that desks be placed 6 feet apart. When that’s not possible, the CDC advises employers to consider using transparent plastic shields (also known as sneeze shields) to separate workstations.
“Many workplaces may determine that it’s okay not to wear a mask if you’re in your own cubicle or office, and I think that’s a safe practice,” says Adalja. “Besides that, I do think that most employers are going to enforce mask wearing for the foreseeable future.”
What kind of mask or face covering should I wear?
The CDC does not recommend that the general public wear professional-grade N95 masks, which should be reserved for healthcare workers and other first responders. Cloth face coverings are an accessible alternative. “If you do wear a homemade face covering, make sure it’s made from a dense, multilayered cotton. If you hold the mask up to the light and you can see through it, that’s not going to be very effective in reducing the transmission of the virus,” says Russo.
Data suggesting that face shields are better than masks at reducing virus transmission may change behaviors at some point in the future. “The translucent plexiglass face shields that come with a headband, which protect the eyes and are less restrictive on the mouth and nose, may become more in vogue than homemade face masks,” says Adalja.
Is it necessary to wipe down high-touch surfaces at the office such as coffee machines, countertops, and door handles?
Although the majority of coronavirus transmission is from person-to-person contact, surfaces remain a potential hazard, says Adalja, adding “I think it still makes sense to wipe down those surfaces to reduce any possible risk.”
Should I be worried about bringing the virus home on my shoes, handbag, or backpack?
“Transmitting the virus through shoes or bags is a very small concern and not something I would spend much time thinking about when it comes to risk for COVID-19,” saysAdalja.
Reducing Risk at Restaurants
Do we have any evidence that COVID-19 can be spread by the people who are preparing or plating food?
“COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, and there’s no evidence that it can be transmitted by food workers through food,” says Adalja. “Obviously, if a food worker sneezes on another person, they can transmit it that way,” he adds.
What kind of seating situations should I be looking for?
“Transmission is less likely to happen in outdoor settings compared to indoor settings, so choosing outdoor seating at a restaurant is one way to minimize your risk,” says Adalja. Restaurants should allow social distancing by spacing tables at least 6 feet apart. “I’ve also read that many restaurants have done away with paper or laminated menus and they’re doing QR scans, so you don’t have to touch anything,” says Adalja.
Should I wear a face covering at a restaurant?
“You obviously can’t wear a mask when you’re eating or drinking, but it’s a good idea to wear them when you aren’t,” says Russo. That means wearing your face covering when entering the restaurant, while being seated, and upon exiting, he says. “You can still talk with a mask on, so ideally you would be wearing it anytime that you’re not eating or drinking,” he adds.
Reducing Risk at Hair Salons and Barbershops
Is it safe to get a haircut?
“The fact is, any social interaction is an opportunity for the virus to spread from person to person, and so it comes down to your risk tolerance,” says Adalja. Although you can’t socially distance yourself from the person doing your hair, you can make sure the salon enforces social distancing between clients, he adds.
One way to reduce your risk is make sure your salon is very careful in not allowing sick employees to work. “There have been reports of two hairstylists who worked sick at a Great Clips [in Springfield, Missouri] and may have exposed many people to the virus, and you don’t want a repeat of that,” says Adalja.
If you’re concerned about the precautions that a salon is taking, call them or visit their website to find out what they’re doing, he suggests.
Does spraying disinfectant in the air or on chairs between clients help prevent the spread of the virus?
“Surface transmission is less likely than person-to-person transmission, so although you do get a benefit from sanitizing surfaces, it’s not as important as social distancing,” says Adalja. “It’s still a good idea,” he notes.
Should I wear a mask while getting a haircut? Should my stylist?
If both the stylist and the client wear effective masks or face coverings properly, the threat of passing the virus at hair salons is relatively low, says Russo.
In fact, masks may be the reason why the two Great Clips stylists in Missouri who came to work with COVID-19 symptoms did not ultimately infect anyone at the salon. Both stylists wore face coverings, as did their co-workers and all 140 of the salon’s clients. The salon also practiced other safety protocols such as social distancing of chairs and staggered appointments.
“The risk [of going to a hair salon] isn’t zero because masks aren’t perfect, either in protecting you or spreading the virus, but I think it’s relatively safe,” Russo says, adding that he is planning on getting a haircut in the next week.